The phone was off the hook at Wimpy’s Grill Wednesday afternoon. That’s usually a good thing, a signal that the burger stand on Hillsborough Road can’t take any more orders right now, so you’ll just have to drop by or try calling tomorrow.
The thing is, there are no more tomorrows for Wimpy’s. The 32-year-old restaurant closed Thursday, a day ahead of schedule, after selling out of food.
The plan was to close for good Friday, but a crowd of fans completely cleaned Wimpy’s out, Larry Mishoe told The News & Observer Thursday afternoon in a phone interview.
“I sold out of everything,” Larry Mishoe said. “We don’t have any food left. I am amazed. I didn’t know I was this famous.”
Larry Mishoe, who opened Wimpy’s Grill in 1987 with his wife, Brenda, has decided to join her in retirement.
He slipped the news to a few regulars Wednesday morning, and by that afternoon, the narrow waiting area was filled with folks chasing one last order, and maybe a T-shirt. Thursday was even busier, with a line stretching out the door and Mishoe cutting off orders at 12:30 p.m. He needed another 90 minutes to serve everyone their food.
It exceeded any expectations Larry Mishoe had about closing the restaurant, and reaffirmed its beloved status in the community.
“(Wednesday) was kind of extraordinary,” Larry Mishoe told The News & Observer Wednesday at the signature A-frame building. “It means pride, pride in what we do; it means a whole lot. We made a living, we’ve been lucky over the years. We’re not rich, but we made a living.”
For years, they served hamburgers and hot dogs — in the spirit of a 1950s drive-in — with all the fixings, plus biscuits in the morning. The beef is ground each day, the sides made from scratch, Larry Mishoe said.
“We decided we wanted to do things the old-fashioned way,” Larry Mishoe told The N&O. “People said you can’t compete with McDonald’s. I said we’re not going to try. We’re going to do something different.”
With a 32-year run, different seemed to work, but it also meant waking up in the early morning hours, the workday starting before dawn. Brenda retired first and suspects the bug finally caught up with her husband.
“I think he was tired of getting up at 1 in the morning,” she told a well-wisher stopping by the restaurant Wednesday, his jaw still slack from the news that Wimpy’s would close.
Brenda is the namesake of Wimpy’s, a childhood nickname born from an early love of burgers. The restaurant followed 20 years of Larry working as a local butcher and as a cook in the Army before that.
The Mishoes have been married 50 years and are now in their early 70s. After the retirement of 28-year employee Sandra Dorman, they decided to retire themselves.
‘Man V. Food’ in Durham
There have been a few brushes with burger celebrity. Larry Mishoe pulled out a couple books naming Wimpy’s the best burger in North Carolina. Then there was the year when the Travel Channel’s “Man V. Food” came to town. Show host and culinary spectacle-seeker Adam Richman ate his way through Durham in 2009 and stopped by Wimpy’s for its so-called Garbage Burger, a bacon double cheeseburger with chili, slaw and all the traditional toppings.
“We were international after that,” Larry Mishoe said. “One day these two guys came in and were taking pictures. They said, ‘You’re famous in Italy.’”
But no amount of fame altered Wimpy’s very much over the years. The cramped building was room enough for a flat-top grill, a fryer and a lobby full of customers glancing down at their ticket stubs each time order numbers were called.
The parking lot was the dining room, and Larry said customers came from all over, hospital workers, construction crews, mechanics from across the street, students from Duke.
In those 32 years, much has changed about Durham and about burgers in general. Durham is now a Southern dining destination, and burgers are one of the national culinary canvases of the day, riffed on by chefs and restaurateurs. Larry Mishoe said he’s proud of Wimpy’s run.
“We don’t consider this fast food, we consider this good food,” Mishoe said. “Burger places (in the 1950s) weren’t pretty, but they had good food. Now they’re pretty, but the food ain’t hardly worth it.”
Twenty years ago, the Mishoes bought the Wimpy’s property, and they plan to put it up for sale.
“I’d like to thank Durham for their patronage and our business,” Mishoe said.